Bee Attacks Across the Country Lead to Questions About 'Killer Bees'

From young children to the elderly, fierce bee attacks have been reported.

Aug. 27, 2011 — -- A errant playground ball hit a beehive in Cocoa Beach, Fla., sending a swarm of angry bees after the kids, chasing them into their school and pursuing them into classrooms.

"They still had bees in their clothes," said Chief G.C. Wine of the Cocoa Beach Fire Department of the Thursday attack. "A lot had stingers still stuck in them. We had to remove them from their faces and scalps."

There were about 120 stings among 38 kids as young as 5 and 7, Wine said.

On Wednesday, 95-year-old Louis Todero was out for a walk in Redondo Beach, Calif., and did not hear the warnings to stay away when a fumigator was spraying a bee hive on the side of an apartment building. Before he knew it, Todero was attacked by the swarm and suffered between 400 and 600 stings.

"He's a remarkable man. He got bit all over his neck and his arms and in his eyes," his daughter Louise Todero told ABC's Los Angeles affiliate KABC. "He's doing fine, and he's still lucky to be here."

Those attacks were the latest in a series of particularly aggressive bee swarms this summer in Florida, California, Texas and Arizona. They have attacked people, dogs and horses. So far, an 82-year-old man in Brownsville, Texas, and a horse have died from the shower of stingers.

But at least one bee expert rejects the suggestion that bees have been unusually aggressive this summer.

Dr. May Berenbaum, a professor and department head at the University of Illinois' Department of Entomology and one of the country's leading bee experts, said that roughly 40 people die from bee attacks per year—which she prefers to call "bee encounters" or "sting events"—out of a population of over 300 million people.

"The fear is really disproportionate to the risk," Berenbaum said.

It's not known what type of bees were involved in this week's attacks, but authorities are aware that aggressive colonies of Africanized bees -- dubbed "killer bees" -- are spreading in the country.

Killer Bee Attacks

African bees crossed into the United States in 1990 after an "ill-advised" importation of the sub-species to Brazil in 1957 escaped and slowly spread to North America, Berenbaum said.

"African bees are expanding their range and people are not used to dealing with them," she said.

Jeff Pettis, the reasearch leader at the United States Department of Agriculture's Bee Research Lab said, "Africanized bees can be a problem... They're more aggressive and can be defensive. They'll really continue to go after you."

Cities like Phoenix and Tucson have programs to destroy them for public safety, Pettis said.

The more docile European bee and the African bee look the same and require DNA testing to be differentiated.

Pettis and Berenbaum, however, deny there is a growing danger of bee attacks.

"When bees sting, it's always in defense. They're not cruising the neighborhood to make trouble," Berenbaum said. "They're not kamikaze, intent on their own destruction. They sting if they perceive a threat on their own home."

Berenbaum's details of a bee attack are unsettling, however.

The little stingers deposit a secretion of alarm pheromone and this is a signal to other bees that they have marked a target, "which is why if you are stung once you'll probably be stung multiple times."

Bees on the attack insert their barb into the skin, which inject their venom. Once they do that, they can't pull it out again. When they fly away, they leave many of their internal organs behind, she said.

"Their venom is designed only to educate their enemies. It's not supposed to kill them," Berenbaum said. "Bee venom is designed to hurt you and for you to remember it." She said that there is a substance in the venom that promotes long-term memory.

Berenbaum said that most human deaths and serious injuries from bee stings happen to people who are allergic to the insect. But, if one is stung enough times, it can be lethal. She said that 10 stings per pound of body weight is lethal, so a person weighing 150 pounds would need to be stung roughly 1,500 times to be killed.

That is little comfort to Lamar Lacaze. The 65-year-old man was stung 1,200 times in September 2010 while mowing a field in Kyle, Texas.

If you are stung, it is best to remain calm and not wave your arms around, Bernbaum said. She also said to remove the stinger, not by squeezing, but by scraping it off with a fingernail or credit card. If you have trouble breathing, become dizzy or begin to swell, you should go to the hospital.

Pettis said that a change in public respect toward bees is the answer.

"In the really big picture, they're not a huge public health risk," he said.

In other countries where the strain is prevalent, including Mexico and Brazil, people have learned to give bees their space. "People learn to just give them a little more respect. They give them a little more room and we've just never had to give them that kind of respect."